The time has come for tuition reformWritten by Dan Johnson | | firstname.lastname@example.org
A recent poll of New York University students revealed that two-thirds would give up their vote in the next election for a year’s college tuition (The Economist, Nov. 24). That’s sobering.
For more than a decade, we have been shifting an ever larger proportion of the full cost of operating our public universities to the students and their families through increased tuition. The net effect of this shift is now beginning to show in a host of socially and economically undesirable ways.
The New York University students’ desperation and willingness to sell their democratic birthright for a year’s tuition reveal just how damaging our tuition policies have become even to our most cherished values. The tuition policies of our public universities must be reformed, particularly here in Ohio, one of the highest tuition states in the nation. It is time for real, substantive change, and we can’t begin too soon.
The scope of the tuition problem is reflected in the growing cries for help from students, their parents and our higher education leaders. To get a sample of the problem I went to Google and ran a search on “college tuition crisis.” Page after page of articles, books, statistical reports, newspaper stories and editorials on the “tuition crisis” filled my computer screen. As I read through many of these stories and reports, I became more convinced than ever that we have erected formidable barriers to the American dream and access to the middle class that are harder than ever to penetrate.
The tuition policy barrier is now effectively filtering out those young people who most desperately need a college education with a disproportionate impact on low-income minority families. U.S. Rep. Howard McKeon (R-Calif.) who chaired the House Subcommittee on 2lst Century Competitiveness, reported in 2005 that “cost factors prevent 48 percent of all college-qualified, low-income high school graduates from attending a four-year college.” We must find a way to eliminate or greatly reduce these barriers.
Jeffrey Fifer, a student at The University of Toledo, is a good example of what our state’s tuition policies are doing to students. In a recent letter to The Blade, Jeffrey wrote, “I am so busy working two jobs to pay for school that I don’t give enough attention to my school work which I am working so hard to get. The government needs to step in with more grants and tuition assistance programs that make paying for college less challenging.”
I’ve heard many members of my generation talk proudly about “working their way through college.” Like them, I am proud that I was able to pay my own way through college. But the calculus is very different today than it was just 20 years ago. In the 1970s and 1980s, most states were paying 70 percent or more of the cost of higher education in our public universities. The students’ share was the remaining 30 percent or less. Our state universities were truly “public” institutions.
Today, however, the reverse is true. Students now pay 70 percent or more of the cost of higher education and the state pays the remaining 30 percent or even less. And the trend is toward students paying an even greater share of the full cost. Our state universities are funded more from “private” sources than “public.”
Sadly, many blame the universities for the problem, but this is akin to “blaming the victim.” At public universities, trustees do not have control over state appropriations. The solution to the problem lies with our state policymakers and their political priorities. True, university leaders must make cost containment a priority and be held accountable. But most of the costs universities are being told to “contain” are beyond their control. The rapidly increasing cost of energy required for heating, cooling and operating our campuses; the rising cost of health care for faculty and staff; the rapidly expanding global demand for outstanding professors; the exploding cost of steel and construction materials needed for new buildings and countless other budget items are beyond the control of even our most frugal university leaders.
The solution rests with our legislature and state leaders. Our universities must be funded at a higher level so tuition can be reduced.
Ohio has gone so far in shifting the cost of higher education to students and their families that only real tuition reform will bring about the needed changes. We are beyond the time when we can solve the problem by working at the margins. Eliminating tuition increases for a year or two cannot come close to solving the fundamental problem. Ohio’s average tuition of $8,490 at our public four-year institutions, among the highest in the nation, needs to be reduced by nearly $2,500 annually to reach the national average. To be competitive with other states and to position the state’s economy in a more globally competitive position, our goal should be to cut tuition to an average significantly below the nation’s average.
Failure to reform our state’s support of higher education and tuition policies in a way that will bring them in line with the rest of the country will have a major negative impact on our state’s economy and our efforts to be more competitive in the new global economy. Two examples illustrate the enormity of the problem:
- Many of our best and brightest high school graduates are beginning to choose public universities in other states where they can pay out-of-state tuition, and it is still far less than Ohio’s in-state tuition. Many of these states happen to be in the West where there are other amenities such as skiing, mountain climbing and kayaking wild rivers. Most of these students never come back to Ohio.
- The vast majority of students finance some of their tuition through loans and incur huge debts of $20,000 or $30,000 that have to be paid back with interest following graduation. For those who go onto graduate school, the debts often mount to $100,000 or more. This prevents new graduates from buying houses, cars, furniture and other consumer goods that help keep our economy strong. Huge student loans, while good for the financial institutions that make the loans, have a long-term chilling effect on the state’s economy.
State leaders have known for a long time that Ohio needs to increase the number of college graduates by more than 200,000 just to reach the national average. Until we tackle the problem of state support for higher education and genuinely reform tuition to make our universities more accessible to middle- and low-income families, we will not be able to achieve Gov. Strickland’s laudable goal of 230,000 more college graduates in Ohio. To achieve this goal, we must remove the financial barriers to our public universities that previous administrations and legislators have created.
This is one of the truly great opportunities our policymakers have for making a real difference and, in the process, making Ohio more attractive for students, for new companies, for investment and for real economic growth.
As children we are all taught, “Where there is a will, there is a way.” If we, as citizens of this great state, have the will to make higher education more affordable and accessible to middle- and low-income students, our policy makers will find a way.
Dan Johnson is president emeritus and a university professor of public policy and economic development at the University of Toledo. E-mail him at email@example.com.